Our company is actively involved in a variety of university programs where we spend time interacting with students. I particularly enjoy mentoring and providing career guidance and am often asked, “Am I better off going straight through to get my master’s degree or should I work and then go to grad school later while working?” Here are a few other things to consider:
Your Employer May Help Pay for Your Degree
Many companies, even small ones like IPS, offer some kind of tuition assistance. Grad school can be quite expensive. There is an obvious financial advantage to using tuition assistance benefits. Wouldn’t it be nice to start work without incremental debt? Everyone’s situation is unique, though, so here are a few pros and cons to consider when making your decision:
Pumping Up Performance Appraisals
Here is a little insight into how the performance appraisal ‘system’ works at some companies. Almost every company of any size has a performance appraisal process. Going to school while you’re employed there allows the manager to “check off the box” indicating that you are doing something to improve your skills. This often reflects well on your performance and this results in a better annual salary adjustment. And on a performance appraisal, being in the process of getting a degree is often a lot more valuable than actually having it. Almost inevitably, managers are favorably influenced by an individual doing something to improve their professional skills. Once employed, you don’t get points for having done this in the past. Best to learn how ‘the system’ works as early in your career as possible so you can work it to your advantage. Sounds self-serving? So what? You are the sole owner of your career.
The Challenges of Working and Going to School
Going to school while working is a tough road. You will have long days and nights in front of you for probably 2 1/2 – 3 years. I took classes in summer and intersessions that allowed me to finish my MS in Mechanical Engineering in 2 1/2 years. The best way to do this is to just jump in the water and get started as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the harder it is to get back in the groove.
Thesis vs. Additional Classwork
One other thing to keep in mind, especially if you are doing this while working, is the subject of thesis vs. additional classwork for degree requirements. If you get yourself attached to a professor working on a thesis, be prepared for the possibility that they make your life miserable in terms of completion. You may well be working on a subject related to their research and they may not be in a hurry for you to finish since you are, in essence, providing them with free research labor. Once you finish, the free labor is gone (or the professor needs to start with a new grad student). This can make the thesis process long with a very uncertain end-game. Not every professor is this self-serving but this is more common than it should be. If you elect to pursue a thesis, you will be well served by reaching an agreement with the professor as to what will define “finished” in order to fulfill your requirements for completion.
When Does a Master’s Degree Have Value?
Having a Master’s Degree early in your career is a very good thing. While not set in stone, it is almost always a positive differentiator when you don’t have a lot of work experience. Early in your career, you are competing for the best jobs and there is not a huge difference in resumes for new grads. An MS (or in some cases, a PhD) can be a benefit.
PhD or Master’s Degree?
Consider what you want to do with your career. If you see yourself living in academia or a research environment, this is mandatory. There are places in commercial environments where a PhD is of value but, in a world of non-PhD’s, this advanced degree is often defined in a very narrow research oriented or analytical world. In the commercial world, beware that there may be a certain stigma attached to PhD’s. They are often viewed as too academic or not practical enough. It can actually be a detriment in certain instances. The MS vs. PhD decision, in my opinion, should be based on what do you want to do when you get out of school.
These are my observations over a long career. Don’t let anyone dissuade you from pursuing an advanced degree based on the fact that most engineers and designers out there don’t have one. This may be true but an MS degree can NEVER hurt you and almost always helps, even when you are an experienced engineer. It says two things about you: First, you are a pretty smart person and, second, you are a highly motivated and self-starting individual. Both are great attributes.
It is unlikely you will find all these considerations in any book and some could argue my points. Either way, I hope these tips help stimulate your thoughts on your advanced education. I pursued and received two advanced degrees while working. In some ways, going to school at night and on weekends was torture but I have no regrets. If you do it, go all out! No pain, no gain.